NATO: Beyond Collective Defense Part VI - Why we lost in Vietnam

By Steve Farrell
web posted June 1999

In 1985, actor Sylvester Stallone, starring for the second time as disillusioned Vietnam Vet and decorated fictional war hero John Rambo, gave us a film that was famously implausible for its action hero stunts, yet fabulously popular, and more importantly, bitingly astute concerning our loss in Vietnam.

His words were few, but his query, "Are we allowed to win this time?" received five stars from cheering veterans in the aisles of movie theatres who were just as anxious as Rambo to get another shot at victory, this time without one hand tied behind their back.

After viewing the film, one veteran told me with emotion, "For the first time I feel like I can hold my head high!"

As grossly animated a character as Rambo was, he did what the United States soldier could have done all along, if permitted, and that was send communist Vietnam into the trash heap of history. But, as in Korea, so it was in Vietnam, a war fought in the name of internationalism, would by design fail.

Many will dispute that point. Former State Department Head Henry Kissinger argued that we lost because of our military's unfamiliarity with guerilla warfare and by virtue of the divisive nature of our democratic government, which provided no staying power, and thus no match for a patient communist enemy. 1

Others, like the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in July of 1965, identified America's lack of a "will to win," as the problem. 2

While Historian Paul Johnson pinpointed "a unique succession of misjudgments, all made with the best intentions," as the indisputable cause. 3

However, white-washing what happened in Vietnam as a succession of misjudgments wreaks of the kind of pollyannaism that has typified the Republican response to "mistakes" in US foreign policy dating back to a series of similar "misjudgments" with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and later Ortega, Khomeini, Hussein, Artiside, and now Milosovich. Amazingly, almost all of these henchmen were characterized kindly, at one time, to the American people as Uncle Joes, agrarian reformers, or as the George Washington's of their respective countries. And so we supported them with money and technology, pulled the plug on their pro-western opponents, even as piles of evidence indicated that none of the above deserved an ounce of trust.

But then in the venture called internationalism, creating and aiding the enemies you later pretend to oppose, appears strangely to be an accepted rule of the game.

Vietnam fit the pattern.

It was our "fervent anti-colonialist" Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA, which sponsored Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in his putsch, known as the "August Revolution,' which ousted the pro-French emperor of Vietnam. 4

A "misjudgment." And then when Ho Chi Minh began to do in Vietnam what we surely expect communists to do, he suddenly became our enemy.

But alliances need enemies, don't they?

Just maybe the "surprise" emergence of Ho Chi Minh, as the slavemaster of Indochina, was just what the doctor ordered. For his presence justified the creation of yet another UN regional military alliance, this time spreading internationalism's wings not into willing Europe, but into stubborn, non-aligned Asia. Or so it seemed.

The result. In 1954, with the zealous support of Democratic President Harry Truman, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed as a sister organization to NATO. 5

Once in place, SEATO sprang to life in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy 6, without congressional consent, sent troops to Vietnam "because the United States and our allies [were] committed by the SEATO treaty or act to meet the common danger of aggression in Southeast Asia." 7

And lest there be any confusion, this we did, said State Department Bulletin 8062, with the blessing of the "UN Security Council." Or as the Bulletin further explained: "The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was designed as a collective defense arrangement under Article 51 of the UN Charter." 8

That should have been a clue that we were in for trouble in Vietnam.

Enter the "Rules of Engagement." Co-authored by fellow internationalists and Council of Foreign Relations members Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, these rules insured that we could not win and that the communists could not lose. Understandably, they were kept secret for 20 years.

It took a subpoena, and a lot of arm twisting, from Senator Barry Goldwater to finally have these "rules of engagement" hauled out of the State Department's vaults, declassified, and published in the Congressional Record, for all the world to see, a decade after the war was over. The rules were startling.

Here are a few: U.S. pilots were forbidden to bomb Soviet made SAM missile sites under construction, but could risk their lives firing at them after they were fully operational. Pilots and ground forces were not allowed to destroy communist aircraft on the ground but only those armed and dangerous in the air. Truck depots 200 yards away from main roads were forbidden targets for American soldiers; but trucks on the road could be attacked. Pilots flying over supply ships laden with war materials on their way to North Vietnam's Haiphong Harbor, were ordered to look the other way, even though the weapons on board would be used to kill Americans.

Throughout the war, returning troops told of being ordered not to shoot until shot at, not to attack the enemy's "safe" areas, and not to hold terrain that had been won at considerable cost in lives and labor. 9

Included, also, in this no-win strategy, was the on again off again ordering of ammunition "quotas," which halted attacks and reversed victories when an elusive daily quota had been met, while paradoxically, abandoning the policy, on other days, ordering vast quantities of ammunition to be fired at "undefined targets."

Quite a series of misjudgments! The Commander-In-Chief, Lyndon B. Johnson, added one more. By one stroke of his pen, he single handedly reversed US Trade Policy, authorizing the wartime sale of US "non-military" hardware to the East European communist block nations, who unsurprisingly converted the same into military hardware, which was then shipped to North Vietnam sporting labels "made in the USA." 10

Those made in the USA weapons killed American boys.

Congressman H.R. Gross (R-IA), summed up these "mistakes" as "a betrayal to international politics and intrigue." 11

Which is the key point. This was the second US war officially fought in the name of the International Order (Korea being the first), both supposedly fought to check communism, both of which by design preserved communism, and in Vietnam, managed to make America look like a fool.

Thus, to be precise, it is time that the embarrassment for Vietnam should be placed at the doorstep not of anti-communism and US nationalism, but on the doorstep of the United Nations, NATO's sister SEATO, and the host of internationalists in this country and abroad who support their institutions and philosophies. Vietnam was a war fought in favor of and in defense of the international order, nothing else.

Had it been a traditional American war of self defense, things would have been different.

"The war against Vietnam [could have been] irrevocably won in six weeks," was the collective opinion of a prestigious panel of former and current Joint Chief of Staffs, Chief of Staffs, and generals, interviewed in the March 1968 issue of Science & Mechanics.

But it wasn't, for we were choosing to fight "a war in a weak-sister manner that [was] unprecedented throughout the history of military science."

In the end, like Korea, Vietnam fell into the hands of the communists, 48 000 Americans died, another 300 000 were wounded, 1.2 million Vietnamese perished, the rest were enslaved, and dominoes was the order of the day in Indochina

Our last "misjudgment" which tumbled South Vietnam, after our departure, was to recommend a familiar UN "democracy/unifying/peace" strategy - the creation of a coalition government between South and North Vietnam.

Democracy, unification, and peace resulted alright, communist style.

Audaciously, the internationalists who gave us Vietnam never acknowledged their part in this fiasco, but used the debacle of Vietnam as cause to condemn nationalism, as cause to elevate their cries for the outlawry of war, and as cause to insure that in the future the UN and its surrogates would intervene earlier, even before "threatening" nations attack - hence Kosovo.

Next up: "Sadam Hussein: The Godsend of George Bush's New World Order."

Steve Farrell is Senior Associate Editor of Right Magazine. Please email your comments to Mr. Farrell at

1. Kissenger, Henry: "American Foreign Policy," W.W. Norton & Company Inc. New York 1974, p. 102.
2. Johnson, Lyndon, Public Papers, Volume IV, p 291
3. Johnson, Paul: "A History of the American People," Harper Collins Publishers, New York 1997, p. 877.
4. ibid., p. 878.
5. ibid., p. 879.
6. ibid., p. 880.
7. McManus, John F: "Changing Commands: The Betrayal of America's Liberty," John Birch Society, Wisconsin, 1995, p. 117.
8. ibid., p. 117
9. Congressional Record, March 6, 14, and 18, 1985.
10. McManus, p. 119.
11. McManus, p. 121


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